Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas? Most certainly not. Modern Christmas celebrations and Hanukkah are commemorated at similar times each year, but the Jewish festival’s background isn’t related to Jesus’s birth.
However, that doesn’t mean Hanukkah can’t teach us about Jesus. In John 10:22–42, the apostle shows us how Jesus fulfills three key elements of this Jewish feast—the hero, the temple, and the lights. Let’s look at what John wants to teach us by first exploring the festival’s background.
Origins of the Festival
Hanukkah is known as the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22) or the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament. Its origin is in the intertestamental period, during one of the most courageous episodes in Israel’s history (167–164 BC; see 1 Macc. 3–4; 2 Macc. 8:1–10:18). Antiochus Epiphanes, meaning “god manifest,” one of Alexander the Great’s successors, sought to unify his empire by establishing a single religion. Consequently, Judaism and its practices—Sabbath observance, Scripture reading, and the circumcision of baby boys—were outlawed. The temple was also desecrated when a pig was sacrificed to Zeus there.
Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, a nickname meaning “hammer”, the Jewish people fought a guerrilla-style war against Antiochus’s forces. Though greatly outnumbered, the Jewish rebels won an amazing victory and retook the temple. On the 25th of Kislev 164 BC, the defiled temple was reconsecrated and sacrifices were offered to God in accordance with the Mosaic law.
The people joyfully celebrated the rededication of the temple for eight days. At the conclusion of the festivities, it was decreed that a similar festival be held each year beginning on the 25th of Kislev (1 Macc. 4:36–39). It wasn’t one of the required pilgrimage festivals mandated in Exodus 23, but those who attended found the days filled with great rejoicing. Hanukkah continues to be celebrated today in the homes of Jewish people.
Jesus and Hanukkah
John 10:22–42 concludes a festival cycle in John 5:1–10:42: Sabbath (chap. 5), Passover (chap. 6), Tabernacles (7:1–10:21), and Dedication (10:22–42). John shows how Jesus fulfills these great Jewish celebrations and how each feast reveals more fully Jesus’s person and work. What did John want us to learn about Jesus from his account of Jesus attending the Feast of Dedication?
1. Jesus as Hanukkah’s Hero
The Festival of Lights would’ve reminded the people of the heroic leadership of Judas Maccabeus. Yet, in John 10, one greater than Judas stood among them. Jesus’s identity looms large in this passage and throughout John’s Gospel. John’s purpose statement, found in 20:31, reads, “But these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The two titles John highlights in this purpose statement, “Christ” [Messiah] and “Son of God,” help us understand Jesus’s visit to the feast.
The festival was not one of the required pilgrimage festivals mandated in Exodus, but those who attended found the days filled with great rejoicing.
While Judas was a heroic military figure, he was merely a man. At the feast, Jesus declared himself to be both Messiah and Son of God. The Jews asked Jesus to tell them “plainly” if he was the Messiah (10:24). If they weren’t sure who Jesus believed himself to be, it was clear when he confessed, “I and the Father are one” (v. 30).
While Judas lost many men in his battles with the Syrians, Jesus’s sheep are eternally secure. The sheep hear his voice and follow him (vv. 26–27). They remain in the twofold grip of the Son and the Father (vv. 28–29).
2. Jesus as Hanukkah’s Temple
While the people rejoiced and celebrated the cleansing and rededication of the temple, one greater than the temple stood in their midst (Matt. 12:6). The temple in which the Jewish people took such great pride would be destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. And from the point of view of Jesus’s first followers, the temple was replaced in AD 30, decades before the Romans destroyed it. God’s glory had once resided in the tabernacle and then the temple, but God’s shekinah glory now resided in his Son. As John states so beautifully, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Early in Jesus’s ministry, he identified himself as the new temple. In John 2:19, he told the religious leaders in Jerusalem, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” John tells us Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body (2:21). The temple which meant so much to the Jewish people, especially during the Feast of Dedication, was merely a temporary fixture until the coming of this true temple.
By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus replaces the temple and becomes the place we meet with God and experience his glory.
3. Jesus and Hanukkah’s Lights
The imagery of light plays an important role in Hanukkah because the light of the temple was extinguished during the Syrian desecration and then was restored by Judas Maccabeus. But John wants us to see that Jesus is the light who shines brighter than Hanukkah’s lights. In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
The temple which meant so much to the Jewish people was merely a temporary fixture until the coming of this true temple.
This is something Judas Maccabeus could never say. The darkness that engulfed the Jewish nation under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes wasn’t fully removed by the victory of Judas, but only by the victory of Jesus. And Jesus continues to shine in the darkness, and the forces of darkness will never overpower him (1:5). A day is coming when the new Jerusalem will have no need of heavenly or earthly luminaries, “for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
Jesus is our greater hero. Jesus is our greater temple. Jesus is our greater light. Jesus fulfills Hanukkah!
This article is part of a developing series on the Jewish festivals that will also include the Day of Atonement, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Purim, Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost.